What is Initiatives of Change?

A reflection by Peter Thwaites

Thursday, April 6, 2023


Background… One Century Old

Initiatives of Change is known today as an international association with branches on every continent and two major conference centres (in Switzerland and India). As an idea and an identifiable movement in the world, this work has existed now for just one century. But Initiatives of Change is not essentially an association or an organisation.


It could be called "the Buchman initiative" because it emerged from the work of Frank Buchman (1878-1961), an American from Pennsylvania. Buchman had been a dynamic YMCA worker and leader. His approach to Christian mission and outreach had been developed under the influence of John Mott and the Scot Henry Drummond. An experience in 1908 had shown him that God through Christ could transform a person inwardly, and he became convinced that such changes were the key to needed change in the world. In 1921 he had the strong thought: "You will be used to remake the world." It led to a new phase in his work with students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Another early influence was Robert Speer whose small book "The Principles of Jesus" (1902) identified four "absolute" standards as the core of Jesus's moral teaching.* [*See Prof Theophil Spoerri's  powerful short biography of Buchman: "Dynamic out of Silence" (Grosvenor 1976, p.19).]  These are: Absolute honesty; purity (in human relationships); unselfishness (freedom from self); and love (the great positive, often identified with God). These four pillars became permanent touchstones in the thinking of Buchman and his team. While never fully or permanently achievable, they offer a charter for life. 

In the earliest years at Oxford Buchman's work was called "the Groups", later "The Oxford Group", then for many years (1938 - 2001) Moral Re-Armament or MRA. In August 2001 it was renamed "Initiatives of Change" (English acronym "IofC").

A Way for Everyone

But the first description of the community of people he was aiming to create was a "First Century Christian fellowship". Real Christianity was not a theory or doctrine but a way of life. "Lived Christianity" could be the summary of Buchman's goal and message. That way of life was not defined by the exclusion of any person or group. Everyone could be part of it immediately. That was possible because the way of life was based on a readiness to change. Openness to change was the uniting factor.


Much of it remained a mystery to Buchman, though he was identified as the movement's founder. For some years, his friends and followers called him the movement's "Initiator" as the most satisfactory description of his role - and that is the word inscribed on his simple tombstone in the Buchman family plot in Allentown where he was buried in 1961: "Initiator of Moral Re-Armament".

When some said to him that he had launched the idea and the movement he said "No, I found it". Garth Lean quotes him saying at a time when he was ageing and unwell and worried about the future of his work: "It was here before I came and I guess it'll be here after I've gone". This cured his worry.** [**Garth Lean: "Frank Buchman - a Life". Constable, London 1985 p.407 ]

He knew it existed but struggled to describe it. It was something that grew organically and could not be nailed down. His instinctive conviction was "There is an answer". The task for everybody was to find it and put it into practice.

The Good Road

No description is final and definitive. One of the best, however, was: "The Good Road", which became the title of a stirring song and one of MRA's major stage shows in the late 1940s.

It was the title of a broadcast Buchman made from Caux on 4 June 1947. "There is a road, a good road among many false ways, a good road mankind must find and follow... It is valid for every nation... It is essential for world peace." A year later, addressing a world assembly in California, he said: "We have lost the art of uniting because we have forgotten the secret of change and rebirth. Moral Re-Armament is the good road of an ideology*** inspired by God upon which all can unite. Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianist - all find they can change, where needed, and travel along this good road together."

A Way of Life

The First Century Christians thought of their common spiritual life as "the Way". Jesus in his teaching had often pointed out that entry into the Kingdom of God was less as a result of belonging to a particular religious community and more of a person's inner spirit of humanity and humility. To those whose lives he had transformed he said: "I am the way".

In my early days with IofC, then called  Moral Re-Armament, we were often reminded: "You can't join it or leave it; you are part of it according to the way you live." It was not essentially a movement, but a "way of life". It could even be understood as a "spirit". At the same time, if we were "living the life" we would find that this would equip us to work together and thus make the work we were doing "effective".

None of this is to deny or belittle the necessity for good organisational practices. In fact through IofC's history some such as myself have had to learn the importance of those disciplines, above and beyond the moral and spiritual ones. Organisation is an important component of IofC work, but not its essence.

***NB: Buchman's use of the term "ideology" rings strangely today when the word is usually associated with a narrow, sectional idea justifying the aims of a narrow, self-serving group. Such "ideologies" have proliferated massively in our age of "alternative facts" and "fake news", to the detriment of all inherited standards of honesty, truthfulness and scientific objectivity.

In Buchman's time the power of ideas to motivate and influence people and nations had been demonstrated by the threatening communist and fascist dictatorships, each with its clear ideology. These were powerful because they combined "a philosophy, a passion and a plan".  The best antidote to false ideas, Buchman and his colleagues believed, was the power of true ones. So in an age of ideologies Moral Re-Armament, it was hoped, could be an ideology of truth and goodness. The speech quoted here is entitled "The answer to any 'ism'". [See Buchman's speeches: "Remaking the world", London, Blandford Press 1961, p162]